The next morning we met our guide at 11AM for touring Bruges, and the weather held for us. Our tour guide was named Louis, an older gentleman who had more experience in the art of storytelling, making for an amusing experience. We met in the Christmas market in the square with the belfry / clock tower that we had climbed the previous day.
The history lesson started with a brief history of Bruges itself, which was founded in the 9th century by the Vikings, who named it ‘Brygga’, a word meaning ‘harbor’ or ‘mooring place’. The river Zwin linked Bruges to the North Sea, making it an important trading port in northern Europe, and also giving rise to wealth deriving from trading and flowing in to the merchant class.
Wealth picked up in the 12th century, and important merchant buildings were established around and on top of the river to unload goods. With this and the natural landscape of canals, the city was nicknamed “Venice of the north”. The land in the Flemish region of Flanders was very swampy, making it difficult to grow crops; however, sheep took well to the bogs and as a result wool and hence cloth became one of the chief exports of the city itself.
The people of Bruges identified strongly with their own Flemish culture and resisted the foreign influence and occasional governance of the French. In fact, in 1302, simple guildsmen, Pieter de Coninck a weaver and Jan Breydel a butcher, organized a nighttime massacre of the French living in Bruges in response to French rulers taking power away from the guild. On this night, Flemish Bruges residents murdered more than 2,000 people in one evening by going door to door and asking to repeat a phrase in Flemish that was hard for the French to pronounce. If the person answering responded with a French accent, they were murdered. The statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, the leaders of the uprising, can still be seen on the Big Market square.
This act then led to the French to deploy thousands of troops in response. The Count of Flanders successfully unified the Flemish population (not an easy feat!) to meet the French, and through guerilla warfare. Using the natural landscape of bog to their advantage, they defeated the French forces (who were laden in heavy armor and artillery, on horses) by literally bogging them down – which is where the phrase is said to come from. This victory is known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs, fought near Kortrijk on 11 July, 1302.
By the 14th century, Bruges developed as the warehouse of the North-European Hanseatic cities and continued to flourish. At the end of the 14th century, Bruges became one of the Four Members, along with Franc of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. Bruges again declined in the 15th century as the larger harbor of Antwerp began to dominate. That said, art and architecture, with the construction of late-gothic buildings and churches, and the Flemish painting school (including Anthony Van Dyck and Hans Memling), continued Bruges’ reputation as an important northern city of culture. The first book ever printed in English, with the advancement of the printing press, was also printed in Bruges around this time.
We continued touring Bruges through the Belfry (which we visited previously) and to an area near our hotel containing an old brewery called the Bourgognes des Flandres Brewery, which once had manufactured a beer called the Black Damnation VI, which had 39% ABV. You could not find it on tap and had to buy it from a bottle store. We later stopped there for a beer sampling, but it was not our favorite. Continuing our way through the charming cobblestone streets, we paused to discuss the brewers guild in the square of the Gruuthusemuseum.
A lovely black cat made its appearance as Louis explained how the symbol of the half moon became the brewery symbols. Legend was that you couldn’t brew during the full moon because the beer would become sour, so brewers would start their brewing process on the half moon instead. We never made it to the Gruuthusemusem, but Louis recommended it as a good example of a wealthy merchant home, with art and furniture intact, from the 15th century.
In the same square, we met a friendly black cat which was owned by a woman putting up Christmas decorations in her shop.
Louis also explained the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was a society including the heads of the guilds and the ruling class. Back in the day, the Order of the Golden Fleece enacted taxes on the city and residents were not fans, giving rise to the phrase “getting fleeced.” The Order of the Golden Fleece persists even to this day, and modern day politicians like Macron were part of it.
Afterwards, we walked to the area where the Half Moon brewery was located and discussed the beer pipelines flowing to the outskirts of the city to facilitate distribution of 1,000 gallons of beer per hour (built in 2016).
Nearby, we then walked through the hospital run by widowed women – Sint-Janshospital, founded in the 11th century. Prior to the founding of this hospital, 75% of people died of their illness or injury, but thanks to the women of the city, their pursuit of medicine, and the free administration of care to the populace, they were able to reduce the death rate to 25%. They were revered in the city and also became quite wealthy since they were laywomen who did not take the vow of poverty, but did receive large tithing donations from the church to continue to operate the hospital.
Along the way, Bruges baker guild chocolate and waffle places were pointed out, easily identified with the official Bruges guild logo.
Continuing on the thread of the importance of women in Bruges, we visited the Beginhof, where the women who tended to the hospital lived and thrived. In fact, no men were allowed on the premises, and it soon became a refuge for women all over Europe. The Beginhof women learned trades from the guilds so they were completely self-sufficient within their walled compound. Their rules were respected and revered by all citizens. Into the 20th century, as the women died and the facility fell in to disuse, it was transitioned to public housing.
Moving on towards the final area of the tour, we stopped outside of the Beginhof near a small lake and Louis regaled us with the story that brought on the decline of the city. We were having a great time touring Bruges, in part because of the stories and drama.
By the end of the 16th century and until mid 1800s, Bruges became the poorest city in Belgium due to a combination of silting of the river, as well as a sorted kidnapping of Maximilian of Austria. It all started when Charles the Good died in 1477 and his 19 year old daughter Mary inherited the duchy. She had many suitors as she inherited wealth and a powerful kingdom. Mary ultimately chose to marry Maximillian, who also was the heir to the Holy Roman Empire and allied the Hapsburg Empire with Burgundy. Interestingly, this alliance later destabilized Europe during the War of Spanish Succession. Mary, who was an active and intelligent ruler, and who could often bend Maximillian to her will (which was the only power a capable woman could exert back then), unfortunately died at the age of 25 in a hunting accident when her horse fell on her.
Her husband and ultimately their children inherited the kingdom of Burgundy. Maximillian at this point had little love for the region and used it as a mechanism to extract wealth. As a result of taxation, the denizens of Bruges imprisoned him and his retinue, and ultimately tortured and beheaded his best friend (and tax minister), Langchals, as he watched from his prison. It’s never good when people try to mess with any related to tax collection, says history, and this turned out no differently. Maximillian and the Bruges people eventually came to an agreement whereby Maximillian would be freed as long as he went home to Austria and never return. He agreed, in exchange for 30 swans being deployed and cared for across the city of Bruges in honor of his 30 person company who were tortured and executed, and in particular in honor of Langchals, his friend, who’s nickname was “long neck.” Our guide, Louis, described this as a “pinky swear”, a promise that of course would never be kept. Shortly after, Maximillian took revenge on the city by outlawing the merchant guilds in Bruges and forcing them to relocate to Antwerp. This led to the decline of Bruges and the ascension of Antwerp in history. But check out the swans!
We walked on towards our near final stop at the Church of Our Lady Bruges, the tallest building in Bruges, and the Bonifaciusbrug, nicknamed the Lovers’ Bridge. We took in the picturesque views, wound back past the the sculptures of the four horseman area which we visited the previous day, and finally ended back where we started in the Markt square. Around this area we found the trees to be very special, later learning they were chestnut trees.
After the tour, we retraced our steps to the Half Moon Brewery for a nice lunch of Flemish stew, beer stew, and of course, beer. Then went on to enjoy our first Belgian waffle at the Bruges endorsed bakery nearby, which also happened to be gluten free.
Afterwards we did some Christmas ornament shopping, including checking out the extremely packed Käthe Wohlfahrt store. We also took some pictures of a gorgeous cold weather, festive plant whose name we later found out to be Erica.
It was time for more beer, and we really wanted to try that Black Damnation, so we tried to find it at the Brewery Bourgognes des Flandres, right across the canal from our hotel. While the brewery doesn’t offer the Black Damnation anymore, we tried a flight of what was on tap. It was beer and hit the spot in that regard, but it was nothing we’d go out of our way to get back home.
After a brief respite at the hotel, we indulged in a dinner at the pop-up, celebrity chef restaurant next door, Balls and Glory. This was a concept restaurant from Brussels that was trying to see if it could make it in Bruges. The specialty was meatballs (chicken, pork etc) with stoemp, which was basically mashed potatoes with pureed vegetables. We found the concept interesting, but the food itself a little bland. For example, one of the sauces was a Thai green curry, which tasted devoid of the normal Thai flavor. Then again, Belgian food was bland so this did fit in with the palette. We enjoyed the dessert which was a chocolate ganache ball with pudding. We also greatly enjoyed all the jokes we made about balls during the meal, especially the one about trying al the balls (even the waiter smiled).